Buddhist Priests and Contemplatives


Exploring this Job

Spend some time in a Buddhist monastery to learn what life is like as a contemplative. Here are just a few of the monasteries and meditation centers that are open to visitors:

  • The Insight Meditation Society (Barre, Massachusetts): https://www.dharma.org
  • Metta Forest Monastery (Valley Center, California): https://www.watmetta.org
  • Zen Mountain Monastery (Mount Tremper, New York): https://zmm.org

Before your visit, review the visitor etiquette guidelines at the organizations’ Web sites and create a list of questions to ask the monks—especially if you are considering a career as a Buddhist contemplative. Some monasteries allow people to take short-terms vows to explore the vocation. You can also visit a Buddhist temple to observe the work of priests. Visit http://www.buddhanet.info/wbd/country.php?country_id=2 for a list of Buddhist temples, centers, meeting groups, and associations in the United States. You should also learn how to meditate. There are numerous classes (many offered at Buddhist temples), books, and videos that can help you to master this key Buddhist practice. 

The Job

The word Buddhism comes from the Vedic Sanskrit “budhi,” meaning “to awaken” or “be enlightened.” Buddhists do not pray to a creator God as devotees of other religions such as Christianity and Islam do. Their prayers might be more accurately described as devotional meditative practices and chants that bring peace to themselves and the world. Some people view Buddhism as a religion, while others believe that a more accurate description would be that it is a “life philosophy.” According to Buddahnet.net, Buddhism “is a philosophy because philosophy ‘means love of wisdom’ and the Buddhist path can be summed up as: (1) to lead a moral life, (2) to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and (3) to develop wisdom and understanding. Buddhism explains a purpose to life, it explains apparent injustice and inequality around the world, and it provides a code of practice or way of life that leads to true happiness.” Buddhism is a complex and interesting religion with a wide range of doctrines, values, practices, and rituals. More detailed information on Buddhism can be found at http://www.buddhanet.net and http://www.religionfacts.com/buddhism.

The three major branches of Buddhism in the modern world are Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and Vajrayana (sometimes described as Tibetan) Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism (the largest branch) is prevalent in several countries with very large Buddhist populations, particularly in China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Theravada Buddhism (the second-largest branch) is concentrated in such countries as Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia. Vajrayana Buddhism (the smallest branch) is prevalent in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia.

Buddhist priests perform many duties, including:

  • leading sunrise, family, Sunday, memorial, and wedding and funeral services
  • conveying the dharma (i.e., the teachings and doctrines of the Buddha)
  • chanting sutras (sermons of the Buddha, one of his disciples, or one who was born after the Buddah’s lifetime).
  • praying for people facing spiritual, physical, or economic challenges
  • chanting the scriptures during a memorial or funeral service at the temple or in the family’s home, and maintaining the parishioner’s family graveyard at the temple
  • leading the congregation in the singing of gathas (songs or verses that are related to the Buddha or his teachings)
  • leading discussion groups that cover topics such as mindfulness, meditation, and other Buddhist principles
  • working in supplementary jobs associated with the temple, including operating a school and providing services for the elderly or the infirm
  • developing and executing spiritual and religious programs for diverse Buddhist audiences
  • continuing to develop and expand their own wisdom, skill at mental concentration, and ethical virtue

Contemplatives engage in meditation and often live in seclusion (although some live outside the monastery and have regular jobs). They are expected to follow The Vinaya (a set of rules that was orally passed down from the Buddha to his disciples)—227 for men and 311 for women. The rules govern their everyday lives—covering issues ranging from rules of behavior (including a contemplative’s relationship with members of the opposite sex) to the size of their living quarters and the types of robes that they can wear. Buddhist traditions vary greatly, so there may be fewer rules for some contemplatives. For example, some contemplatives are allowed to marry and have families. Both men and women may be ordained as priests, although women are not ordained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Daily activities include:

  • waking up early in the morning to meditate and chant to encourage peace, tranquility, or special protection or healing
  • walking to the neighboring community to ask for food, or alms (this is only done in Theravada Buddhism; Mahayana monasteries are as self-sufficient as possible), and then returning to the monastery to eat. (The meal is very important since most contemplatives only eat once a day.)
  • participating in classes in Buddhist education
  • cooking, cleaning, gardening, and performing other duties that support the monastery
  • preaching, performing rituals, and officiating at ceremonies at the temple or in devotees’ homes (in some Buddhist traditions) 
  • preserving and disseminating the teachings of Buddha
  • continuing to develop and expand their own wisdom, skill at mental concentration, and ethical virtue